The role of a Master's students
Who: Tom Henfrey, Department of Anthropology, Durham University and Beacon North East Theme Leader for Energy and Environment; Wilf Richards, community partner, Abundant Earth/Durham Local Food Network; Amy Mycock, Master’s student in Social Anthropology, Durham University, supervised by Dr Henfrey and Dr Sandra Bell.
What: Co-inquiry partnership (community-university research partnership), centred around the provision of a masters Postgraduate bursary awarded to Amy Mycock to develop a website for Durham Local Food Network.
Why: To research and promote the work and benefits of the network to the local community.
When: 2009 – 2010 (though collaboration is ongoing beyond the funding period)
Where: County Durham, North East England
The Durham Local Food Network seeks to build a resilient localised food production system as a response to concerns over dependency on oil and its derivatives in a time of increasing scarcity, climate change and other negative environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, and the increasing control over the food chain and production process by big business.
The one-year project, which started in October 2009, looked to promote the Durham Local Food Network and raise general awareness of organically grown local food among the Durham local community. Its main output was a website which sums up the Network’s aims and objectives and showcases local food products.
The Master’s student, Amy Mycock, developed marketing material such as flyers and e-mails that promote the website and built relationships with farmers and producers. She regularly ran a stall at a local farmers’ market and networks with farmers and community stakeholders. Amy also undertook general research and evaluation activities and helped with grant application writing and editing. In addition to working with Abundant Earth, Amy joined the Local Food Network and is now seen by its members as “one of them”, attending meetings and helping with the Network’s general activities. She also volunteered to spend half a day per week at Abundant Earth’s smallholding.
“I have ‘gone native’ and almost become one of the subjects of my own inquiry. The fieldwork has not been an abstracted study about ‘them’ but rather, it has involved striking up real relationships with the people you are working with.” Amy Mycock, Master’s student, Durham University
The co-inquiry research project aimed to broaden and strengthen the local food network by documenting the perceptions, motivations, interests and practices of growers and manufacturers of food and drink in County Durham, to increase inclusion and take into account the full range of agendas that intersect around the idea of local food in the county. It also fed in to the key strategic and practical aims of the network: to increase its membership, raise its profile, and contribute to the development of a new Durham Local Food website.
The overarching aim of the collaboration was the creation of a producer-consumer network to strengthen the local food sector. Specific objectives, and methods were employed, as follows:
- Compilation of a directory of food producers (growers and manufacturers) within the Durham and Weardale areas
- Documentation of production techniques and marketing/sourcing strategies to estimate the effects of these on embodied energy in food produced (e.g. are producers sourcing inputs locally, are they taking steps to minimise energy-intensive processes, and are they seeking to supply local markets)
- Interviews with local food producers to determine what motivates them to promote ‘local food’ and assess the extent to which concerns with embodied energy influence their technical decisions and examine overlap between their priorities and the low-carbon agenda promoted by the Transition and Permaculture movements
- Contributed information to a web directory of local food producers, and input into the design of an interface that would allow self and peer assessment of producers’ environmental performance
Results and outcomes
- Durham Local Food Network website
- Enhanced awareness of issues surrounding sustainable agriculture in the Durham area
- Increased membership of Durham LFN from about 80 individuals to 250
- Master’s degree for Amy Mycock
- Executive summary of Master’s dissertation to be published in ‘easy to read’ language and be publically accessible via the Durham LFN website
- Report for One North East
- Academic publications, both ethnographic and methodological, some involving Wilf as co-author
- Return of information to the Permaculture and Transition communities: e.g., under Wilf’s tuition, Tom is working on applications of Permaculture design principles in designing and executing participatory research as a design project for his Permaculture diploma
- Conference presentations: Tom Henfrey presented a paper on permaculture and collaborative ethnography at the European Association of Social Anthropologists (2010)
What worked well
The opportunity for the community partner to get an independent view and perspective on the website development process. Having Amy as a dedicated person to drive the project forward with her expertise and enthusiasm greatly improved the chances of the website coming together. The time and commitment that Amy put into the project was crucial in spreading the message across the local community.
For Amy, the project offered an opportunity to test and develop her knowledge of ethnographic research methods through frequent interaction with farmers and food producers.
Meeting and networking with farmers and food producers at local farmers’ markets, allowed Amy to document changing practices in growing fruit and vegetables and rearing animals. Also, the opportunity to contact and network with local producers meant that Amy was able to build a rapport.
The community partner, in this project, Wilf Richards, acted like a ‘third supervisor’ to Amy. Wilf’s experience and knowledge of local groups and networks was invaluable in facilitating links. He also taught practical skills such as facilitating meetings.
On a practical level, the university’s assets were useful to the collaboration i.e. using rooms on an evening for meetings and because the university is land rich there is the opportunity to see if more space can be devoted to growing food on campus.
“Collaborating with the university has allowed us to tap into resources that are not normally available to voluntary groups. It has also felt very much like an equal partnership: I am conscious of how I and other members of the local food network are bringing skills and expertise that the university does not have, and together we have created something new and distinctive that neither organisation could have achieved on its own.” Wilf Richards, Abundant Earth/Durham Local Food Network
Main factors contributing to the successful collaboration of this project are:
- An existing relationship: the partnership derived from an existing relationship therefore they trusted each other and quickly developed a way of working. Furthermore, they were coming from the same point of view. Tom was able to secure funding because he was “quick off the mark”, and because he and Wilf were quickly able to liaise and reach an agreement about how to approach the application.
- The right student: they had to recruit at short notice and consider the applied as well as academic aims of the project and the personalities of the team. Amy was known to the academic team, and as stated above was academically capable and was already an active participant in environmental issues. This combination of traits proved successful and as Tom says, “she has worked incredibly well and has really flourished”.
- Multiple teacher-student relationships: it is interesting to note that beyond the ‘traditional’ and perhaps expected ‘one-way’ student-teacher relationship, in this situation, there were ‘multiple teacher-student’ relationships emerging between the different partners involved in the project. Each had something to contribute and something to learn from each other. As Tom says on reflection, “the involvement of permaculture design principles has been an overarching feature”: an important aspect of his relationship with Wilf is that “Wilf is my permaculture teacher”, and Tom also feels that through their mutual involvement in Transition work, he learns a great deal from Wilf about organisational development and facilitation of group processes. It is a refreshing acknowledgement (and perhaps an overlooked aspect of co-inquiry research) that goes beyond learning from or learning with community partners. In this case, the pedagogic relationship goes further, as it also includes Wilf’s formal and professional role as a Permaculture teacher. Both Amy and Tom trained for their Permaculture design certificate under Wilf’s tuition, and Tom has since registered as a Permaculture diploma apprentice with Wilf as his diploma tutor.
“Academic research can be frustrating, because so often it is about following in the wake of social innovation, and can be very difficult to reconcile with practical goals. Using co-inquiry methods has allowed us to weave the research process into what the Local Food Network was already trying to achieve, and had great positive benefits on both sides, and it is exciting to think where this might go in the future.” Tom Henfrey, Durham University
What didn't work well
Paperwork associated with funding: the only criticism Wilf Richards, the community partner, had of the collaboration was that he felt the paperwork he had to fill in for One North East was a burden. He felt that the objectives set were unrealistic (e.g. how many new jobs Amy had created).
Role conflicts: Amy became so engrossed and immersed in the project that at times she found it hard to focus on the research. Involvement in practical tasks such as, building the website and administrating the Durham LFN informed her understanding of the local food scene and helped her make connections with people involved. Arranging and attending meetings ‘can be a drain on your time’ but having meetings on an evening suited more people.
Tangible and mutual benefits: having something tangible to offer the community, in this project, free opportunities to network and market products through the Durham LFN network encouraged participation in the research project.
Internet networks/tools/applications: ‘online networks’ were an important tool in this collaboration and worked well as many of the groups involved have an online profile. Amy used ‘survey monkey’ – an online questionnaire tool – to collect responses to three questionnaires; the first, for local food producers; the second for Durham LFN and the third for allotment holders. This method can generate a lot of data quickly but there are limitations because it depends on individuals/groups having a web profile.
Volunteering with a community partner as part of the collaborative project can provide an informal setting for conversations about the research project and help establish relationships and trust within the partnership.
Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research Project
This case study formed part of the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research (CAR) group project. The aims of the CAR group project are to share learning from Beacon NE partners about co-inquiry as an approach to community-university engagement, with a particular focus on research, and to produce materials (co-inquiry literature review, a toolkit and articles in practitioner and academic journals) that will be of use to universities and community partners engaging in this approach.
The project has been funded by Beacon North East and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and is based in the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University. Members of the CAR group include academics from Durham and Newcastle Universities and community partners involved in collaborative projects through Beacon North East under the themes of social justice, ageing and wellbeing and energy and environment.
The CAR group has met on five occasions to discuss in detail the findings from a literature review, case studies presented by members and the design of a toolkit. This case study, involving a collaborative project under the theme of energy and environment was presented to the group by Tom Henfrey. Further interviews and collation of material were undertaken by Andrea Armstrong.
If you would like more information about the project then please contact:
Tom Henfrey, email@example.com
If you would like more information about the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research project then please contact:
Andrea Armstrong, firstname.lastname@example.org